Semi conductor

Lizzy Brittan made the career switch from white- to blue-collar work; now she orchestrates a production team making trailers in Stoughton.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Stoughton Trailers has been manufacturing semi-truck containers that roll down the nation’s highways since Don Wahlin first started the family business in 1961.

Inside the enormous Stoughton manufacturing facility, we find Lizzy Brittan, 35, who is approaching her six-year anniversary with the company and her second as a production supervisor, conferring with other employees about one of the cavernous boxes being assembled. Moments later, she’s off to assist employees in another area of the plant.

In a previous career, Brittan, from the northern Wisconsin town of Iron River, worked in Duluth, Minn. as an investor relations and compliance manager with a hotel management company. After meeting her future husband and commuting back and forth, she decided to move south.

The transition from a desk job to manufacturing has gone well, she remarks. “I definitely prefer being out in the manufacturing shop because I can move around all day. Sometimes I’m running from one end of the plant to the other dozens of times a day — about a half-mile each. It’s not abnormal to have 10,000 steps in by noon on my FitBit. You’d think I’d have legs of steel by now, but …” she laughs.

Brittan is not in any one place for long, we learn, as we attempt to follow her from one area to the next. From ensuring that the crew has everything they need to complete their jobs, to troubleshooting, to calling for backup from the on-call maintenance crew if necessary, or assisting others, her job is to ensure a complete product.

Brittan, above, with Stoughton Trailers’ staff securing a roof to one of the 15,000 trailers produced by the company each year.

She’s done it all along the way since first being hired as a level-one assembler and steadily working her way up the ranks. April 1 will mark her two-year anniversary as a supervisor. Now she oversees a mostly-male (from our observations) crew in a variety of production areas.

Each of four supervisors manage around 20 employees per shift, Brittan explains, but because the company is short a supervisor at the moment, she’s overseeing twice as many staff and two additional production areas until a new hire is made.

Brittan takes it all in stride, saying supervisors enjoy helping out on the assembly line from time to time. “If you don’t, you kind of forget. One of the biggest misunderstandings of assembly line work — which is probably true anywhere — is that you do the same thing from start to finish. But here we have the ability to move people around a lot.”

That, she says, makes cross training easier “so employees don’t get bored and can keep their sanity.”

Ten or more semi-trailer containers are manufactured each day, per shift, and there are two shifts. Now a salaried employee, Brittan works first shift, 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursdays. Second shift runs 4:30 p.m. through 3:00 a.m. “There’s always an option for voluntary Fridays,” she explains, and less frequently, mandatory Fridays.

She appreciates having an option for three-day weekends. “You can’t find a lot of jobs that allow that,” she states.

Her mornings, though, usually begin a bit earlier, around 5 a.m., allowing her a few moments to check emails and payroll. At 5:30, the supervisors gather with their employees to connect with staff, discuss the day’s expectations, note any special orders or concerns to be aware of, and assess staff availability. “The flu has been killing us this week,” Brittan acknowledges.

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Production by the numbers

Inside Stoughton Trailer’s plant, trailer containers are in various stages of production. They move along through assembly areas identified by “org” numbers: employees working in Org 61-100 assemble the sidewalls, front walls and the couplers, or the 5th wheel underneath each container that will be used to connect to the tractors.

Org 61-110 attaches all of that to the under-frame assembly, which then gets anchored to the rear frame assembly.

As much as she enjoys digging in where she can, Brittan also appreciates the ability to summon the company’s on-call maintenance crew, above, when machines appear to have ideas of their own. Below, Brittan helps another employee attach a trailer’s sidewall to its chassis.

Brittan typically handles Org 61-120 where floorboards are installed and the front wall is riveted to the sidewalls in what is called the buck-and-shoot area.

Surprisingly, the gigantic containers — so much larger in person, it seems, than when they’re tooling down the road — are not on wheels. They move from area to area on air pallets that support most of the weight, with some employee guidance. Most of the trailers the company manufactures are 53 feet in length, but 48-foot and 28-foot versions also are common.

It’s a balancing act. In the industry, trucking firms look for the lightest trailers possible so they can haul more weight, but they also expect durability. Stoughton’s trailers are built to last 12–14 years on average, the company reports.

To form a container’s roof, a huge machine rolls an aluminum skin over the box not unlike a huge sheet of aluminum foil. Employees trim it to size and stretch it lengthwise and widthwise to make it as strong as possible before crimping it down.

As the trailer moves through production, doors will be attached, plumbing and electrical will be wired inside the front wall, and the landing gear (the legs that support the trailer when no tractor cab is attached) will be affixed. Then the trailer gets lifted off the ground as tires are added and aligned and the brakes and brake lines are checked. The final step involves a final wipe down and quality-control inspection.

The fascinating process is surprisingly efficient. A unit that starts in the morning is often completed later that night. “Each org has a set amount of time that they need to complete their portion of the job based on how many trailers we need to build in 10 hours,” Brittan explains. Requested add-ons — like scuff guards or special rails — take extra time, but she’s witnessed as many as 18 units completed in one day.

Muscle maven

After holding an office job for 15 years, Brittan says her initial introduction into manufacturing wasn’t the easiest. “The first couple of nights I felt like someone had beaten the bottoms of my feet with a sledgehammer,” she laughs, saying her first piece of advice for new recruits is to have good boots with good insoles. Within a week or so, her body adjusted. That said, many of the jobs at Stoughton Trailers can be physically demanding.

At one point we find Brittan about six feet in the air helping another employee lift composite scuff guards from one pile to another. The long, rubbery planks are heavy and awkward to move, but she displays plenty of muscle for the job. “I don’t have to join the gym,” she jokes afterwards, her face flushed from exertion.

Supervisors cross train employees, but low unemployment rates are making things tougher than usual. “It’s not easy to get people in,” Brittan acknowledges. With plants in Evansville, Brodhead, and Stoughton, the company is always looking for workers, particularly for second shift.

It helps, she says, if job applicants have some degree of manufacturing background, or know how to read a tape measure, but it’s not a requirement.

“I was overwhelmed at first,” she admits. “I didn’t know anything about building a trailer or lifting parts of one.”

In fact, before joining Stoughton Trailers, her only thoughts about semis on the roadways were “how to get around them.”

These days, her lengthy road trips back to Iron River provide more interest. “I catch myself looking at trailers to see how other companies build theirs,” she says. “I even tend to count how many Stoughton trailers I see on my 357-mile drive.”

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